Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oka: The Call of Africa

For those pining for more ethnomusicologist movies, your wait is over. Larry Whitman needs a new liver. Instead, he heads off on a final African hurrah, hoping to complete his field recording project by documenting the fabled molimbo, which may or may not exist. Yet, he does not spend much time looking for either once he rejoins the Bayaka pygmies in Lavinia Currier’s Oka! (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Times have changed since Whitman’s last sojourn through the Central African Republic (CAR). Formerly woodland hunter-gatherers, the Bayaka now primarily live in the Yandombe village, working at a lumber mill. Not content with the current rate of deforestation, Mr. Li, a Chinese businessman, has his eye on a vast swath of the forest. Of course, the corrupt Mayor Bassoun is willing to grease the wheels for him. However, their plans are complicated when the tribe’s shaman Sataka uses the excitement of Whitman’s arrival as a catalyst for a mass return to the forest.

Often feverish, Whitman is not much help with the communal chores. Yet, he attracts the romantic attentions of Sataka’s granddaughter anyway. Still, there will be interpersonal conflicts in this Eden. He will also extensively record the songs of the Bayaka as well as nature’s ambient music.

In a way, Oka is like a more wholesome version of Barbet Schroeder’s’ La Valée (a.k.a. Obscured by Clouds), featuring a westerner on a hallucinatory quest into the heart of the primordial jungle. Oka though has a much richer soundtrack (you read that right Floyd fanatics, bring it on). Featuring dazzling polyrhythmic percussion tracks from real life Yandombe musicians as well as some infectious high life-esque tracks composed by Chris Berry, Oka’s music is its greatest attraction.

The film also looks great too, capitalizing on the striking natural vistas of CAR. Primary cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (whose grandfather James Norman Hall co-authored Mutiny on the Mutiny) makes the lush backdrop radiate a sense of awe and mysticism. Indeed, it is fortunate the sights and sounds of Oka are so cool, because the screenplay spends long periods of time roaming lost through the jungle underbrush.

Resembling Steve Buscemi’s taller brother, Kris Marshall’s Whitman hardly looks like he could last a night in the great outdoors, but his gangly earnestness is oddly engaging. Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch regular Isaac de Bankolé takes one for the team as co-executive producer, playing the thankless role of the by-the-numbers villainous mayor. Though it is a bit of a stereotypical wise man role, Mapumba has undeniable screen presence as Sataka, anchoring the film quite nicely.

To give due credit, Oka replaces the cliché of the evil American businessman out to plunder CAR’s natural resources with a Chinese business on said mission, which is frankly far more realistic this day and age. As narrative filmmaking, Oka is somewhat slack at times, but as an audio-visual tour of the African rainforest, it is rather impressive. It deserves to at least reach the world music audience who will appreciate Whitman’s calling when it opens tomorrow (10/14) at the Angelika Film Center.